Charlotte Higgins on why Greek myths have so much to say to us now

The author of Greek Myths tells us why these old tales remain timely.

Charlotte Higgins
Greek Myths, standing at a slight angle against a yellow background.

For English speakers, the word ‘myth’ has a double resonance. On the one hand, it means something that is patently false. A repeated, received fiction. On the other hand, it contains the opposite idea: something powerfully, fundamentally true.

For the ancient Greeks, muthos meant an old story, so old that fiction had been lent the force of truth, or truth the force of fiction. What use are ancient Greek myths now, in the twenty-first century? They are, of course, deracinated from the religious context in which they first operated. We no longer need to think that Gaia was born from Chaos, or that thunder is Zeus’s weaponry, or that when we see a rainbow it’s the sky-trail of the goddess Iris (and, in fact, plenty of rationalist ancient Greeks were deeply sceptical about mythical explanations of natural phenomena).

I think part of the reason we are drawn to Greek myths now is that that they live in this strange hinterland between truth and fiction. They come at us from some deep, unknown, long-lost place and yet they do so to tell us about the present. ‘History is always then; myth is now,’ novelist Pat Barker wrote recently.

‘Greek myths’ as we know them are the material of Greek (and, later, Roman) literature and culture – the stories that decorated their ceramics, the scenes carved into their temple facades. They were the shared story-language of peoples liberally dispersed across the Mediterranean world, in many ways distinct from each other, often politically at odds. There are no authoritative texts of the old stories of this scattered people. They were always versions of versions, tendrilling alternatives, spiralling variations.

In the ancient world, myths operated differently in different contexts. That meant both a localisation of myths – stories adapted and adopted with twists that might add credibility to the foundation myth of a city, for example – and stories differently slanted in the hands of different writers and artists.

The earliest literary treasuries of Greek myths are the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey; and Hesiod’s Theogony, telling of the birth of the gods. Later the fifth-century dramatists of Athens often took a cue from Homer, using a single scene, a moment, an idea as the basis from which to expand the action of their plays. Aeschylus’ Oresteia, for example, answers a question hinted at in Homer: what really happened when the victorious Greek general Agamemnon got home from the Trojan War? How did his wife – a story sketched briefly in The Odyssey – actually come to kill him? In turn, Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, set as the Greek fleet prepared to sail to Troy ten years earlier, provides a prequel to the story: the dramatist makes his audience sit – painfully – with the question: what would it actually take to make a father (Agamemnon) sacrifice his own daughter (Iphigenia)? What emotional contortions would you have to go through to do something so patently wrong? What political accommodation, what religious justification, what rhetoric of persuasion, would force you to shed all moral compass?

For the fifth-century dramatists, these stories of long ago and far away helped them confront the political and moral dilemmas of their own times. They can do the same work for us, too. Greek myths – really, like all great literature – are activated and reactivated in the moment of reading and re-reading.

A re-teller is, of course, also a reader. She must make creative choices about what tales to tell and how to tell them: the sheer quantity of source material, aside from any other consideration, makes that necessary.

So what did I find was activated for me as I set out to retell these tales? Many of the classic compendia of Greek myths, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales to the splendid Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes (which I recommend for children), are deeply invested in the idea of the male hero and his quest. I wanted to widen the frame, though, or maybe point the camera in a slightly different direction, opening up other possibilities that are present in the source material.

Greek myths are full of complex, maddening, strange, violent, brave women. Because the camera had so often been pointed away from them, and so firmly at the male hero, these female characters had often been side-lined, sanitised and prettified into virtuousness – or, quite as likely, invisibility. But who wouldn’t want to write into Apollonius of Rhodes’ wild portrait of Medea, the woman who, in his third-century epic poem, does all the heavy-lifting usually associated with Jason, the man she falls in love with? Read the source material and you’ll find that it’s she who has the secret to fighting Pelias’ fire-breathing bulls; it’s she who enchants the dragon to sleep so that the Golden Fleece can be stolen; and it’s she who kills the giant Talos – unforgettable from his appearance in the Harryhausen film, which omits poor Medea entirely.

As I wrote the book, the news was full of apocalypse. California was on fire; there were disastrous floods; the start of a pandemic – signs of a planet’s delicate mechanisms pushed into chaos by human activity. Greek and perhaps particularly Roman thought contains a good deal of thinking about humankind’s destructive interventions in nature. Rereading the story of Phaethon, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it seemed impossible, just now, not to see in it a metaphor for climate crisis. Phaethon, despite dire warnings, is absolutely determined to borrow his father Helios’ horses for one day, driving the Sun chariot across the sky. He can’t do it, of course: the horses veer out of control. When they plunge too near to the Earth, the land burns. When they fly too far from it, it freezes. Violence breaks out. People die. Phaethon – who only wanted to prove himself his father’s true son – was blind to the consequences.

As Sophocles had said 500 years earlier, of all the things that walk upon the surface of the Earth, there is nothing so wonderful, so terrible, as humans. Greek myths are often called timeless. I’m not sure: I think of them as timely.

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